- The Darkest Surrender
He’d thought he’d motivated her to victory. He’d merely incited her to craziness.
“What the hell is she doing bare-handed?” Sabin asked conversationally. “Even Gwen has a weapon.”
He didn’t answer, couldn’t. There was a knot in his throat, cutting off sound, air. The other teams turned on her, just as he’d expected. What he hadn’t—the animals charged her as if she wore a bull’s-eye and he could guess why. Someone had worked them into a frenzy using Kaia’s scent.
Which they’d most likely gotten from her stolen coat.
Strider was on his feet and shoving his way through the crowd in seconds. Until something hard slammed into his back, knocking him down. There wasn’t time to catch himself. His forehead hit rock, a sharp pain exploding through his head. Oxygen abandoned his lungs. His vision blurred.
Nothing stopped him from bucking off the weight and standing, running forward, not caring to look behind him to see who’d tried to stop him.
Win…her, Defeat said.
Yes. I’ll win her, save her. I will.
Through a haze, he zeroed in on Kaia. She was darting around the arena, throwing her competition at the frothing animals. The beasts were all too happy to tear into their new toys as they followed her.
The hard weight slammed into him a second time, tossing him back on the ground like a rag doll. Roaring, Strider swung around, intending to do a little killing before he resumed his journey.
Win. A new challenge.
Yes, he thought again. I’ll win this one, too.
“Your woman will be disqualified if you aid her.” Lazarus unfurled from him and stood. He was weaponless, shirtless, pants unfastened and clearly hastily tugged on. The dark chain tattooed around his neck was pulsing, slithering around his neck like a snake, the inky links actually clanking together.
Strider stood and took stock. “I’d rather she were disqualified than killed. Now, then. You and I have a bit of business to attend to before I go.”
Lazarus quirked a brow. “Good luck with that.”
On it. Eyes narrowing, he stalked forward—only to stop when he saw Sabin and Lysander barreling toward him, calling his name. They were looking at him, but not actually seeing him. In fact, they raced through him before he could jump out of the way.
Shocked, he peered down at himself. They had run through him as if he were no more substantial than mist.
“No one can see us,” Lazarus said easily. “Not even the angels.”
Red dotted his vision. “What did you do to me?”
Boos and hisses from the crowd had him swinging around and peering below. The combatants had thinned out somewhat, but most of Team Kaia still fought. Including Kaia herself.
She was coated with blood and he wasn’t sure if it came from her or the others, but her movements hadn’t slowed. She was still throwing punches, kicking and flinging females at the—no, not the animals. At Bianka, who finished them off with a long, curved blade. The animals were now fully fed and satisfied, sitting off to the side and watching the rest of the battle through slumberous eyes.
The panic inside him eased. Kaia hadn’t resorted to fire. Or maybe, as he’d supposed, she didn’t know how to summon it. But either way, she was kicking ass and taking names. Even better, the teams were no longer able to converge on her en masse. She moved through them too quickly.
“I only have a few moments,” Lazarus said, now at his side. “If Juliette notices I’m gone…”
Reminded of the challenge that had been accepted, Strider said, “I’m sorry, but I have to do this.” Lightning fast, he threw his own punch, knuckles crunching into the warrior’s nose. Cartilage snapped. Blood leaked from his nostrils.
Defeat sighed with satisfaction, pouring pleasure through his veins.
Lazarus straightened and wiped the crimson away with the back of his wrist. “I doubt I will be the first person to tell you how annoying you are.”
“You might be the thousandth.” He walked the rest of the way through the balcony, until he was poised over the edge. The warrior followed him, returning to his side. “So how are we here but not here?”
“Juliette has been forced to grant me more and more powers in order to see these games through as she wishes.”
“She can give you powers? Just like that?” He snapped his fingers.
A stiff nod.
“The ability to cast illusions no being can penetrate.” Another nod, and their surroundings changed in an instant.
Strider blinked, one moment seeing the stands as they’d once been, the next seeing them as they were: crumbling, eroded by time and harsh elements. Not to mention the humans touring through the designated sections, snapping pictures. Then, after another blink, the stands were brand-new again.
“Plus the ability to hide our immortal world from the mortal one?” Strider asked.
“Yes. That, too.”
“And you’re sharing this with me because…”’ Cause yeah, Strider knew damn good and well this could be a trick. That the bastard could mean to lull him into a false sense of security before striking. Hell, as distracted as he was, Lazarus could attack him at any moment without much resistance.
“I am a slave and I no longer wish to be.”
He could dig, but… “I don’t trust you. I’m not going to trust you.” He watched as Kaia and Bianka clasped hands. Bianka swung her around, Kaia’s legs slamming into the three females gunning for her. When her twin released her, she went flying like a bowling ball, knocking others down like pins.
What a woman.
He had a present for her and it was burning a hole in his pocket. Why hadn’t he given it to her yet? He didn’t know. Wasn’t sure she’d like it. Was kind of embarrassed that he had it. To be honest, it was ugly as hell, and it proved how much of a pansy he’d become since meeting her.
For that alone, she’d love it, he thought, grinning.
“What?” Lazarus demanded.
“Kaia,” was all he said.
“Yes, she’s strong. She’s also honorable, in her way. You have no idea how I envy you.”
“As long as that’s all you do, you’ll be fine. Maybe.”
“Which brings us back to the reason we are here. I do not need you to trust me,” Lazarus said, his tone all the more urgent. “I need you to listen. Do you know what the Paring Rod can do?”
That captured his attention completely. He gripped the balcony rail tightly, knuckles leaching of color. “Tell me.”
“The Rod steals from the living. Their souls, their abilities, their life forces, whatever. It strips a body of everything, trapping what it steals inside itself.”
“Paring it down to nothing but a shell,” Strider croaked as comprehension dawned. That made sense. Scary, scary sense.
“Yes. But when you wield the Rod, you cannot take the powers inside yourself. You have to give them to another. Or, if you want them yourself, you have to entrust the Rod to someone else and have that person grant you the powers.”
“And Juliette has done that for you. Granted you powers.” Like the illusion thing he’d mentioned.
“Yes,” the warrior repeated. “Nothing that matters, nothing that could hurt her, just little things that I am to use to impress her sisters.”
“How do these powers impress them?”
“You have to ask?” Offense layered the big man’s voice. “Never have the games been held in such exotic locales.”
“Like I’d know. I’ve never been to the games before.”
Lazarus huffed. “Your ignorance is forgiven, then. Barely.”
“Thanks,” he replied dryly. “I feel so much better.”
“As I said—annoying.”
“So how did Juliette get her hands on the Rod?”
“Like the rest of her race, she is a mercenary. She will do anything if the price is right, and Cronus’s wife used that information to her advantage. She knew Juliette had been searching for me for many centuries. And she, in turn, had been searching for a way to secure the Paring Rod for herself and her Hunters. That’s why, a few months ago, the queen promised to hand me over if Juliette could steal the Rod from my mother, the Gorgon tasked with its protection. Juliette jumped at the chance.
“But greedy witch that she is, when she learned exactly what the Rod could do, she decided she wanted it and me. So she killed my mother, intending to have a replica of the Rod made and trade the fake for me. But Rhea and most of her army disappeared just before their meeting, allowing Juliette to simply grab me out of my cell, no trade necessary. No resistance.”
“Why were you locked away?”
There was a flicker of shame in his eyes. “Hera, the former god queen, enjoyed keeping a menagerie of males. I had heard my father, who was made to sleep the sleep of the dead, was kept there, and so I allowed my own capture in the hopes that I could somehow rescue him. But I never found him, and then I could not escape.”
The sleep of the dead. That meant Typhon was alive, aware, but unable to rise from his bed. So that was what had happened to the creature. “I’m sorry,” Strider found himself saying. He had his own sob stories, but nothing compared to Lazarus’s suffering.
He had known that the Paring Rod would be destructive in the wrong hands, but he hadn’t known how dangerous it could truly be. And now he also knew why the Hunters had sought out Kaia and her sisters. With Rhea’s disappearance, Juliette had taken more than the Paring Rod; she taken control of the Hunters. “What happened to Galen, Rhea’s right-hand man?” Surely he would have something to say about that.
“Galen is the keeper of Hope?” At Strider’s nod, he said, “The warrior took off just before Juliette’s arrival. I’m not sure about his destination.”
So. Galen was out there. Somewhere. “And where is the Rod now?”
“I have it.”